The NBA Rookie of the Year race was expected to come down to top picks Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green when the season began.
Oddsmakers had the guards selected first and second overall in July’s draft as basically co-favorites, although at one point Houston’s Green moved into the favorite role once an ankle injury in the preseason pushed Cunningham’s debut back.
Once the season started, both guards took a back seat to No. 3 pick Evan Mobley of the Cavs and fourth selection Scottie Barnes, who Toronto took ahead of Gonzaga star Jalen Suggs. Those two hit the ground running immediately. Despite both being 20-year-olds, they played like men among men.
Now that we’ve reached the final quarter of the season, Mobley and Barnes remain 1-2 in the Rookie of the Year race. Cleveland’s success and the staying power it has put on display thanks to Mobley’s steady excellence as a versatile power forward has produced separation, making the USC product a heavy favorite who isn’t likely to be caught over the final month-plus.
Mobley Rises Up As Most Impactful Rookie
Although this column is going to discuss other top plus-money options, it would be dishonest to say that there’s much hope in anyone finishing ahead of Mobley once the final votes are tabulated.
With Jarrett Allen sidelined indefinitely, Mobley will join Darius Garland as the primary catalysts as the Cavs look to solidify a top-six spot in the East in order to stay out of the play-in. Cleveland will spend the weekend challenging Miami and Chicago in back-to-back road games, so Mobley will have the spotlight on him challenging vets like Bam Adebayo and Nikola Vucevic. A five-game homestand that begins Monday will feature Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and probably Anthony Davis coming through Rocket Mortgage Field House.
If Allen hasn’t returned, Mobley will have to handle those guys by himself. Unless he falls on his face or suffers an injury, Mobley is likely to make that -500 look like a great value bet with this final obstacle between him and the 2021-22 Rookie of the Year award arriving while he’s flying solo.
Mobley finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds in helping the Cavs hold off the Raptors last Sunday when Allen was injured and finished with 22 points, 12 rebounds and five steals in Tuesday night’s win over Indiana. He tops all first-year players in rebounds and blocks while ranking fourth in points per game.
Barnes Boosts Raptors, Flourishes in Frontcourt
If you’re going to take a shot at someone sneaking in and stealing the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy, Barnes is your guy. He’s the most recent recipient of Rookie of the Month honors in the East, getting the nod ahead of Mobley after closing February out with a 28-point, 16-rebound game in Brooklyn.
With OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet missing in action in early March, Barnes continues to play a huge role in Toronto, averaging 17 points, 9.3 rebounds and four assists through the first four games this month. Barnes is averaging 40.0 minutes per night too, so he’s going to be a major factor in whether the Raptors can crack the top-six in the East since the Cavs, Bulls and Celtics are all in their sights.
Eight of Toronto’s final nine games will be at home and the team is expected to play in front of actual fans with COVID protocols easing in Ontario, so the team could make a big push that could conceivably lift Barnes past Mobley. He’s +500 at DraftKings, +600 at BetRivers, and +650 at FanDuel and BetMGM.
Cunningham Settles In, Starts Living up to the Hype
Cunningham has rebounded from a slow start and is still in the mix to emerge as the first No. 1 overall pick to be named Rookie of the Year since Ben Simmons prevailed in 2017-18. The Pistons’ point guard averaged over 17 points in December and January. He was named Rising Stars MVP during a memorable All-Star Weekend and has opened March with four straight games of 20 or more points.
Detroit has won three games in a row for the first time all season this month, leaving Orlando in the Eastern Conference basement. Entering Wednesday’s home date with Chicago, the Pistons had won six of eight as Cunningham has begun to emerge as the most special player in this draft class. Unfortunately, it’s probably too little too late to get enough first-place votes to pass Mobley or even Barnes since they’ll be making the playoffs and his team is headed back to the lottery.
Cunningham is +600 at every book and isn’t worth the investment despite his late surge.
Longshots Include West’s Best and Magic Men
The Western Conference Rookie of the Month is likely to be someone other than Oklahoma City’s Josh Giddey for the first time all season. The Thunder wing earned the nod from November through February and ranks seventh in total points, third in rebounds and first in assists. He’s listed everywhere from +1100 to +1800 and would be a decent bet if we had more time left in the season. Although he’s a lock to finish as a First Team All-Rookie member, a hip injury has sidelined him since Feb. 24 and is expected to keep him out for most of March. Giddey recorded three consecutive triple-doubles as the primary ball-handler when OKC star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was sidelined and has a bright future.
The Australian teenager will likely be joined on the First Team All-Rookie squad by Mobley, Barnes, Cunningham and Magic forward Franz Wagner, who is the only 1,000-point scorer in this class right now. His odds are listed at +3000 at most shops, while Orlando teammate Suggs, Green, Chicago’s Ayo Dosunmu, Indiana’s Chris Duarte, Golden State’s Jonathan Kuminga, Memphis’ Ziaire Williams and New Orleans’ Herb Jones will vie for Second Team All-Rookie spots and are all listed as +10000 longshots.
If you’re looking at an option to back at plus-money who can get in the way of Mobley’s coronation, Barnes is your guy and roughly 6-to-1 odds would supply a handsome return.